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Every road rider falls in to routine at some stage – laps of the same circuits, the same routes past the same cafés, climbs chosen for their proximity to home over more alluring qualities. Rapha’s Hell of the North is the sort of ride that explodes these routines, forcing riders out on to tracks and roads they’d otherwise miss, all in the name of one of the world’s most exceptional road races.
Sunday 13th April saw the fifth running of the Hell of the North. Riders were met with calm skies and sunshine at Highgate’s Pond Square. The route was revamped for this year, covering several new sectors of gravé and a feed stop at the Gosling Sport Park velodrome. Gravé, in case you’re wondering, is the North London equivalent of Paris-Roubaix’s pavé – farm roads and bridleways that challenge the handling skills of any rider. The 17 sectors ranged from pleasant sojourns, through fields on relatively smooth roads, to borderline barbaric ordeals over rutted trails.
The conditions and course draw a number of different bike types. The consensus is that 23mm tyres are too thin, and anything above 34mm too luxurious to be true to the event’s spirit. Suspension was tolerated but by no means condoned. The stories at the feed stop and pub were of miraculous, last-second saves and perilously close calls – in other words, all we talked about was the fun of riding.
The inclusion of the velodrome at Gosling Sport Park proved popular. With its open, concrete wall, shallow banking and grandstand, it is a remarkable stand-in for its Roubaix counterpart. The trusty Rapha H-Van set up shop on the turf, serving coffee and cake to slightly shaken riders. A few practiced their finish-line sprints and Ballerini-style salutes.
As tradition demands, the day finished with beer and frites in front of the big screen for Paris-Roubaix. The first riders started drifting into the pub with 100km of the big race to go, and with 45km left the pub was heaving with riders. Much discussion of tactics ensued but few predicted the elegant simplicity of Terpstra’s seated attack. The post-race images of a spent and dusty Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins hiding from the afternoon sun and scoffing snacks were replicated by the day’s final riders.